Elite theory does not often sit very well with democratic aspirations. And the simple reason is that the political elites often define their interests in ways that are antithetical to the demands of the people on whose behalf they are often called upon to make political judgments that orient national policies. Hilary Clinton puts it as bluntly as she could: “It is a fact that around the world the elites of every country are making money.” This statement is meant to signal the enormous doubt that attends the character of the political class across the world. Even in democracies, it is the political elites that form the fulcrum of the decision-making process on behalf of the people. They are the set of representatives that stand in the place of the demos, and are meant to make informed decisions that conduce to well-being and human flourishing. And this then implies that when the ship of state is faltering—when governance refuses to be good—we must ask the political elites. But then, if these so-called elites are sidetracked by the greedy and egoistic act of “making money,” of promoting their own interests at the expense of the people, then there is a lot to be said for the pessimism about their capacity to birth genuine nation building and national development.
This essentially is the angst against the national elite in Nigeria. All across the world, elite nationalism has a fundamental role to play in not only the birthing of a nation but also in keeping that nation together, stable and progressive. It becomes something of a national duty on the African continent where the national political class played a significant role in the anticolonial campaigns that led to the official shutdown of colonization. And yet, independence brought an ambivalent reaction that increasingly undermined the imperatives of elite responsibilities to a state. This is so because there was created a terrible hiatus between the aspirations created by the rhetoric of anticolonialism and the realities of postcolonial statehood. The emergence of the state in Africa was accompanied by the hope that it would become a capable democratic developmental state that could deliver the strategic framework to (a) implement sound macroeconomic policies that could alleviate poverty, create employment, and grow a strong, sustainable and competitive economy that could facilitate the well-being of the citizens, (b) promote popular participation that can lead to the indigenous ownership of the development agenda, (c) build a sound institution of public administration that is professional, citizen-friendly, technology-enabled and meritocratic, with a capability readiness to efficiently achieve service delivery, and (d) mobilize state resources, administer budgets and manage public finances productively, transparently and accountably.
This was the task that was faced by Singapore, as a third world country. An apocryphal quote is often ascribed to Lee Kwan Yew that signaled the direction he decided to take, that eventually led to the transformation of Singapore from a third to a first world country. He was alleged to have said: “There were two options for me. Either I get corrupted and put my family in the Forbes list of the richest people in the world and leave my people with nothing. Or, I serve my country, my people and let my country be in the list of the best ten economies in the world. I chose the second option.” The first option is then often left to symbolically denote the options taken by the political elites of countries that failed to go the path of Singapore and Lee Kwan Yew. Is this not the path that the Nigerian political elites took since independence?
But this supposed response must be contextualized. No one will fail to recognize some commendable but significant nation-building efforts of the political elites from independence that we like to conceptualize in discourse today as ‘pockets of effectiveness’. I can signpost a few that readily come to mind. First, I take it that no politically conscious Nigerian, with a deep sense of Nigeria’s administrative history, will doubt the huge political inputs that went into the infrastructural transformation of the regions after independence. Regionalism and the regional competitiveness that were supervised by Awolowo, Bello and Azikiwe defined the very essence of Nigeria’s federalism post-1960. The old western region, under the political-administrative determination of Awolowo and Adebo, became a reference point in elite cooperation and visioneering. And this was all despite corrosive political climate that was already tending towards war.
But then, and second, the civil war turned out to be an occasion for an administrative dexterity and clear-headedness that was still dedicated to the developmental progress of the country even though war was still raging. And then when military became the norm, we can still reference the Murtala-Obasanjo and Buhari-Idiagbon regimes, and the determined war of the political class against corruption and indiscipline. With the Babangida administration, there was a clear-cut governance template that gave concession to talents, professionalism and meritocracy in using world-acclaimed technocrats and the very best Nigerian intellectuals in the policy space. And when democracy dawned in 1999, there has been a series of governance efforts at institutionalization through consistent reform initiatives, from Obasanjo to Buhari.
Unfortunately, the narrative has remained that of perpetual transitioning in quantum paces that never added up to any critical boiling point that crystallizes into genuine national transformation. And this becomes more frightening because our national dynamics are getting more complicated, complexified and seemingly irresolvable. We just need to scrutinize the unraveling insecurity, misgovernance and underdevelopment in the country, and the blatant complicity of the political elites in the situation. This line of thought points us back to fundamentals. For instance, what is the meaning and objective of political power? Essentially, political power is meant to be deployed as a significant transformational, rather than transactional, force that gets a state or a people from one alpha point to another and better omega point. Political power becomes therefore the critical motivation for social change and reconstruction in a state. When politicians win political power, it is meant to be deployed, on behalf of the people, to achieve democratic aspirations and developmental imperatives.
But then political power corrupts, and often absolutely. Politicians, even those who understand what power could achieve, have bent it towards nefarious and selfish interests that undermine the transformational capacities of power and made it a transactional framework for limiting the well-being of the people. The most fundamental misuse of political power in Nigeria is the palpable absence of a strong and coherent ideological framework around which political power can then serve as a firm machinery for getting the objectives of nation building and development working. In this sense, an ideology is a prism through which national ideas, beliefs and action blueprints are refracted and modulated. And the ideological differences between two or more parties within a democracy ought to serve as ideational alternatives that demonstrate different but focused ways to a state’s future greatness. When one political party wins election, and hence the legitimate use of political power, the ultimate beneficiary of that victory ought to be the people on whose behalf the political power ought to be deployed. All ideological road ought to lead to the empowerment and flourishing of the citizenry.
Alas, the political elites in Nigeria lack an ideological coherence that ought to motivate party politics. On the other hand, political parties and their ideological frameworks also represent development paradigms. This is one essential lesson we learnt from the early nationalists in the First Republic. Awolowo’s Action Group and later Unity Party of Nigeria were founded around the ideology of democratic socialism and its vision of development for the people. This led to the policy choices that birthed infrastructural development. Azikiwe’s party orientation hinged around the ideology of neo-welfarism, and the ethical responsibility of the state to provide a level playing field for citizens to achieve self-realization through the state’s provision of essentially goods and services. The question is: what are the reigning ideological fault-lines along which we can begin to recalibrate Nigeria’s development? The absence of a serious ideological dynamic could only mean that political power would fail to orient the political class to its fundamental responsibility on behalf of the people. Elite nationalism speaks to the capacity of the elite to create a nationalist space that will serve as the cauldron for generating ideas and action plans that the people can rally round.
This brings me to another fundamental issue that has undermined the capacity of the Nigerian political elite to become a force for nationalist transformation. This is the issue of progressive engagement and collaboration. The nationalist capacity of the political class anywhere is often attached to the fervent heroism of the people to believe the agenda of the political parties and to run with it. This means that the imperative of transformational politics demand that the political elite, to achieve a nationalism that will capture the imagination of the people, need to be in progressive collaboration with those elements of the democratic space, especially the civil society, that could be drawn into the ideological discourse on how political power could be used and deployed for the betterment of the state. Nationalism is founded on the developmental agenda that the political elite is able to put together that will transform into infrastructural development and the provision of public goods which then serve as the basis for the sense of belonging that the citizens begin to feel for one another and for the leadership of the state.
If elite nationalism will save the Nigerian state, it must have a populist cum patriotic self-justifying dimension that will submit the development agenda of the political elite to the parliament of the citizens through an ideological salesmanship in the political agora. The Nigerian citizens are politically sophisticated sufficiently, in spite of the stultifying stomach infrastructure drawback, to be able to determine which set of political elites they want to commit the next four years of their lives, and the template of their well-being to.
Prof. Tunji Olaopa
Retired Federal Permanent Secretary
& Directing Staff, National Institute
For Policy and Strategic Studies
(NIPSS), Kuru, Jos